California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has intervened with a decision that will shape Hollister’s future—in an opinion that took him nine months to write: “The City (of Hollister)’s resolution (to sell ‘the 400 block’ on San Benito Street for a mixed-use commercial development)is not subject to referendum.” In other words, public opinion be damned.
Political insiders—the majority of the City Council, the city manager, the Community Foundation for San Benito County, some local developers and business owners, and Assemblywoman Anna Caballero—all lined up in opposition to a referendum that would seek voter approval of the sale. They are hoping that Becerra has the last word—that his long-awaited opinion will end the dispute, and enable the project to begin.
The leader of the July 2017 petition drive that had sought the referendum, Mayor Ignacio Velazquez, isn’t so sure. He said last week he is speaking with an attorney about the April 27 opinion, which while not the same as a court ruling, effectively blocks any public vote on the sale of prime downtown real estate.
Velazquez believes his 2,465 signatures and the people they represent deserve to be heard, and we agree with him—if not in a public vote, then in some manner that forces the council to take a second look at its decision to sell a little less than a half-acre of lawn at Fourth and San Benito streets to the Community Foundation and the Del Curto Brothers Group, local developers. After all, the city did sell it for 77 percent less than an appraisal available at the time—and failed to disclose the appraisal. At minimum, the project should be re-bid at current market values, with a competition to achieve the highest and best use of the property.
Velazquez believes—we go along with him on this—that the change in the city’s redevelopment plan for the block from a public plaza to a commercial development deserves more public debate. The plan and the land deal also deserve an airing—in the spirit of transparency, a complete disclosure—of the communications and documents among city staff and council members leading up to the decisions about the project.
Velazquez has been understandably out of that loop because the building and restaurant he owns, The Vault, sit immediately adjacent to the vacant land, and he could stand to gain by decisions made about the fate of that site. He has not participated in the negotiations or decisions, properly so, to avoid even an appearance of conflict of interest. His opposition to the development plans are ironic, because he contends the value of his property and his business would probably increase if the plans were completed.
The preliminary plan—unanimously approved, with the mayor abstaining, by the City Council acting as a “successor agency” to its community development agency, in 2016— would construct two projects: a privately funded nonprofit office building with a small public plaza, and a multi-building commercial complex with retail and office on the first floor and residential condos on upper floors.
Their plans are headed for multiple presentations before the council and the planning commission, as would any major commercial project. These should give additional opportunities for voices to be heard.
But since so much time has passed, the City Council should reopen the process to give the public a chance to ask questions about this key piece of real estate and view the decision with a fresh perspective. It is, after all, much more than “an empty lot in the city’s downtown core,” as Caballero described it in a letter to Becerra last July.
It lies at the city’s heart, and may hold a key to its future. It deserves a fresh look, a fresh conversation, to ensure a public consensus.